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Pops: A LIfe of Louis Armstrong by Terry Teachout

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The challenge for any biographer approaching a subject whose life story is ingrained in

the world’s cellular memory is to introduce something new to that tale. For Pops, his exhaustive Louis Armstrong bio, author Terry Teachout benefited from unprecedented full access to a sizable collection of private reel-to-reel tape recordings Armstrong made over the years to while away the hours. Now the property of Queens College in New York, which houses the Armstrong archives, the tapes reveal a somewhat darker side of the most famous jazzman who ever lived, a Satchmo-a.k.a. “Pops” to those who knew him best-who held grudges, swore a blue streak and seethed at mistreatment both real and perceived.

But for the most part, Pops serves to reaffirm that the omnipresent wide grin was Armstrong in his natural state-and not just because he was an unrepentant marijuana smoker throughout his entire adult life. Armstrong never forgot his rough-and-tumble New Orleans childhood or the breaks he caught as his gift became apparent, and if his refusal to play the race card-he once befriended a man who called him a racial epithet, was unapologetically loyal to his white, mob-associated manager and wore a Star of David to honor a Jewish family he worked for-meant some fellow blacks (among them Dizzy Gillespie) would label him a sellout, then so be it. Racism certainly didn’t avoid Louis Armstrong, but neither did it envelop him. For Armstrong-much to the dismay of his four wives-the music trumped all else, and anything that got in its way was to be dismissed as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Teachout’s grasp of (and ability to explain) Armstrong’s artistry is undeniable, and Pops, particularly in its early chapters, doubles as a valuable history of jazz’s formative years. It is, however, also a surprisingly clinical, linear read, often failing to convey the sheer excitement inherent in Armstrong’s revolutionary music. Pops advances Armstrong scholarship, but not by leaps and bounds. Taken alongside Laurence Bergreen’s Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life and Armstrong’s own indispensable Satchmo, Pops provides significant insights, but its unabashedly fawning tone and lack of spark prevent it from being definitive.

Originally Published